A lazy post today–just a repeat of an article I wrote last week for the group “No Whine, Just Champagne” on Gather.  The article engendered little discussion, possibly due to the Vice-Presidential debates happening at the same time.

The comments I received indicated that most of the authors that belong to the group aren’t dealing with language in their works.  A few mentioned accents as a way to indicate “foreignness” but there wasn’t as much interest in the idea of using either genuine or made-up dialects.  Several people said they found it pointless and annoying to include non-English words in a text.  I found that a little discouraging, since SOTA has words in four different tongues, all created by yours truly.  I can only hope others are a little more sympathetic.

Anyway, here is the article:
We live in a world where there are 266 unique languages, each spoken by over a million people. It is commonplace to meet people in our home countries for whom English is not their first language–who speak hesitantly, or use the wrong word at times. When we travel, we might find ourselves in the same position. The problems of communication between different native speakers can create tension within relationships, lead to business failures or even outright warfare. It is a fact of life, and an important one. So, in the pursuit of realism within our fiction, should we give our characters different languages?

Authors have approached this conundrum in differing ways. In the His Dark Materiels trilogy, Philip Pullman does not make any mention of or concession to the variety of spoken languages. Everyone in his books–whether from Earth, alternative London, witch, harpy or wheelie–speaks the same tongue and can easily understand one another. That is the easiest and probably the most common way to deal with the issue; simply to ignore that it exists.

Douglas Adams, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, takes a different route. He circumvents the problem. Early on, after Arthur and Ford have left Earth, Arthur receives a singular aid to understanding–the Babel fish that Ford sticks in his ear. By this clever invention, Adams acknowledges that there are a Universe full of different lingos, but he doesn’t have to deal with writing about them, because Arthur can now magically understand everything that is said to him.

The third option is to embrace multiple languages within the plot, with all the difficulties that entails. C J Cherryh, in her Foreigner Universe books, does this very successfully. Her protagonist, Bren Cameron, is a representative of the human race thrust into a alien world, where words like love and loyalty, even when directly translated, do not mean the same thing. Cherryh creates tension through mistranslation and misunderstanding, and that adds to the “foreignness” of Bren’s experience amongst the Atevi.

I also chose the third option for Song of the Arkafina. My world, Yrth, is home to many languages, and when the characters travel from one part to another they have difficulties in making themselves understood. Sometimes it is important to the plot, other times it is just something that they have to deal with–as do we, in normal life. It made the writing more difficult, especially when there were several languages being spoken in a group at the same time. On some occasions, I did employ my own sort of “Babel fish,” but other times I had my characters lost and confused because they could not understand what others were saying. I think it adds realism–others might find it pointlessly distracting.


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